Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks as United States President Donald Trump listens during the daily meeting of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 22, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
Public health professionals and the medical community have criticized the Trump administration for reports that politically appointed communications officials meddle in studies of coronavirus published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Politico reported late Friday that communications assistants at the Department of Health and Human Services have requested and been given the opportunity to review and seek changes to studies published in the CDC's weekly reports on morbidity and mortality. Such reports are written by professional researchers and reviewed by the CDC prior to publication. They are one of the main organizations through which the country's leading health agency communicates with doctors and public health professionals across the country.
Politico reported that since Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official, was appointed spokesman for HHS in April, "significant efforts have been made to reconcile the reports with what Trump said". Politico quoted emails and three people who were familiar with the matter. CNN and the New York Times confirmed Politico's coverage, citing federal health officials.
The office of the assistant secretary for public affairs "is deleting virtually all publicly available documents for all of its departments, including CDC," Caputo said in a statement to CNBC. "Our intent is to ensure that evidence and science-based data are driving policy through this pandemic – not ulterior motives in the depths of the CDC."
On Saturday, members of the public health community expressed frustration over the report, which has not been confirmed by CNBC. Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University, described the reports as "incredibly worrying".
"It's also very annoying for those of us in the public health and medical fields. The MMWR is a landmark CDC publication," he said in an interview with CNN's Fredricka Whitfield. "I think MMWR is still trying to get the information out, but now I'll start reading with some skepticism."
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, said on Twitter that the move was "outrageous and dangerous" for public confidence in the CDC. He added that the move was "not surprising".
Politico's report included an email dated August 8 from the appointed Paul Alexander to the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, and other officials cited, asking the CDC to amend two previously released reports.
"CDC seems to me to be writing hit pieces about administration," wrote Alexander, referring to reports on Covid-19 risk for children, according to Politico. "CDC has attempted to report as if the children were spreading after the meeting, which would affect the reopening of the school. Very misleading by CDC and shame on them. Your goal is clear."
Caputo defended Alexander's remarks, saying that Alexander "is an Oxford trained epidemiologist" and that "he has been encouraged to share his views with other scientists".
Dr. Atul Gawande, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard, said on Twitter that political candidates "shouldn't play a role in scientific publications. None."
Natalie Dean, biostatistician at the University of Florida, urged the Trump administration to give the CDC professionals more freedom, so to speak.
"It remains unthinkable to me that we should hear so little from the CDC during a global pandemic that has hit the United States so badly," she said on Twitter. "The expertise is there. Let the scientists do the talking."
As part of MMWR, the CDC has continued to publish key studies on Covid-19 on a regular basis, including one this week highlighting the risk of spread related to eating in a restaurant and another demonstrating children's ability to spread the virus even though they do not get seriously ill disease.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement to CNBC that Trump has always been receptive to "data and science". The CDC falls under the responsibility of HHS.
"As Minister of Health and Human Services, along with the best doctors in the country, I briefed President Trump and insisted that he have direct access to these doctors throughout the COVID-19 pandemic," Azar said. "He has always been receptive to the data and science presented by myself and other members of the task force. President Trump's science-based decision-making has saved lives."